BY JOSH WIGLER
[Warning: this story contains spoilers for season three, episode two of USA Network's Mr. Robot.]
The second episode of Mr. Robot's third season removed a player from the field, killed off in shockingly brutal fashion: Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliussen), a mainstay since the earliest days of the series, shot in the head by her jilted lover Derek (Chris Conroy). It's the first series regular casualty in three seasons of Robot, and one that feels especially surprising considering Joanna's enigmatic role as a devil-may-care power player in the Sam Esmail-created universe. But as Esmail tells The Hollywood Reporter, there's a certain "justice of the universe" that Joanna's death satisfies — and for his part, writer-producer Kor Adana backs that position.
In the second installment of our weekly conversation with Adana about all things Robot, we're digging into Joanna's death, but first! A "New Sensation," as we discuss Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his new day job working at E Corp. From his current position within the belly of the beast, Elliot's striving to unravel Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and the Dark Army's nefarious Stage Two plot, all while dealing with his renewed sense of loneliness. By the end of the episode, Elliot's focus shifts toward another powerful entity: the FBI, with his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) reporting directly to Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) as her confidential human source.
Read on for all of Adana's thoughts on these Robot developments and more.
Before we dig into this week's episode, how are you feeling now that the season three premiere is out in the universe?
The time leading up to the premiere is always a nerve-racking experience. You have this shiny little gem that you and a private group of people have been working on for months, and then you get to release it to the world. Overall, I'm pleased with the reaction. I enjoy seeing how the community reacts to certain reveals, performances, music choices, shots, details, and easter eggs that we spent so much time preparing. I'm also happy that people are noticing the shift in pacing for this season. If they felt the premiere had this rapid burst of momentum, I can't wait for them to see the rest of the season.
The second episode sees Elliot returning to the office environment for the first time since the first season. What were the discussions like as the writer's room wrestled with how best to depict Elliot's return to the work force?
Once we decided that Elliot would be returning to Evil Corp in an attempt to undo the Five/Nine Hack, the idea of him in an office environment was something that excited everyone in the room. We knew that it would make most sense for him to be a part of the recovery initiative, the team that's trying to recover the encrypted debt data. In a way, it's our return to the energy of season one while placing Elliot in the belly of the beast. Elliot's journey here makes me think of this passage…
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts, 18
The episode ultimately presents Elliot's new employment at E Corp through an upbeat montage set to "New Sensation," culminating in an explosive title card reveal. It's really evocative of the types of sequences we would see in season one, an age of innocence for this show, if such a thing ever existed. Was that by design, bringing things back to basics?
While we did a couple similar things in the first season (the hacking sequences are in a completely separate category for me), I don't think we've ever done anything with this much upbeat energy. I was talking to Justin Krohn, the amazing editor who cut this episode, about this opening. He recounts numerous conversations with Sam about the tone of the montage. They wanted it to feel like the opening of Trainspotting, All That Jazz, or something out of a Scorsese film. And this is a long montage. It's not normal to have an 8-minute sequence like this on television, so it was important to keep the pace up and use repetition in an engaging way. I know they went through a bunch of songs before settling on "New Sensation." At first, it was some B-side Oasis song, but that didn't have the right feel. Eventually, [post-consultant] Sean Schuyler and Justin Krohn found the INXS track and tried it out. The song works because it has a lot of space in it. It doesn't sit on top of the dialogue/action and it has this propulsive quality to it.
Did you try on any of the emoji masks, and which emoji best suits you?
As tempting as it was, I did not try any of them on. I imagine they're rather uncomfortable and sweaty. Those actors had to wear the masks for many hours on a subway platform during a hot and humid New York summer day. Which one best suits me? That's tough. I rarely emote. Seriously, my agents will call me with good news about a script sale or something and I'll be like, "Cool. Great. Thank you."
A question about Elliot's new job at E Corp... how much discussion was there about his employability, given that he spent time in prison, and given that we know the FBI has tabs on the artist occasionally known as Mr. Robot?
We definitely discussed this in the room. There's a combination of factors that help me buy that E Corp would hire someone like Elliot. First and foremost, the strongest influence here is Angela (Portia Doubleday). Her clout at the corporation and her connections with upper management make me believe that she could use her influence to get Elliot a job there. Secondly, E Corp has a history of employing corrupt associates with questionable practices. As long as it was helping the company in some way, I think E Corp could look beyond Elliot's past. Which brings me to my last point… the recovery effort is an "all hands on deck" operation to recover the lost data. They would want the smartest minds involved in this effort. It's not uncommon for ex-hackers (even with felonies on their records) to get jobs as security consultants for major corporations. This is a case of a black hat hacker who changed his color.
Among Elliot's new coworkers: an incredibly obnoxious man singing songs about his sexual conquests. Who is this guy, and how many Josh Groban concerts has he attended with Ollie Parker (Ben Rappaport)?
Samar Swailem is a complicated man. He fills that void that was left by Lloyd, our technical employee with little-to-no filter who sits next to Elliot at work. In my mind, Samar is probably more of an Arcade Fire or Bon Iver fan, so I'm not sure if he's going to Josh Groban concerts with Ollie.
In digging around the computer screens encountered in this opening sequence, a few digital destinations emerge, including e-corp-usa.com/login and an Inside_Evil_Corp subreddit. How much time do you recommend poking around these parts? Any pointers on where to start?
Without getting too detailed, I can say that there's a lot to unpack in the opening sequence. I would definitely check out that subreddit, pay attention to any email addresses that pop up, and try hitting some of the servers that Elliot logs into.
Elliot enacts a plan to stop Stage Two, one which seems to cause some headaches for the poor folks in shipping and handling. For the layman (again, not pointing fingers, except maybe at myself), can you explain exactly what it is Elliot's trying to pull off here?
He's actually doing three things here:
1. At the end of season two, in order to start rebuilding their database, we learned that E Corp was shipping all of their pertinent paper documents — titles, deeds, loan/debt records, etc. — to their New York recovery building. To buy himself some time, Elliot hacks into the E Corp shipping management service, E Shipping. With that access, he is able to re-route the shipments of paper documents and make sure they don't arrive in New York. However, in the E Shipping manifest, he's creating a mirage and making it look like the original shipments are arriving. Anyone who takes a look at the manifest, like the Dark Army, would think that the paper is getting moved to New York — while in reality, it isn't.
2. Just in case the Dark Army figures out a way back on to the E Corp network and decides to run Stage Two themselves, Elliot decides to patch the UPS systems in the recovery center. The plan for Stage Two is to install a new, malicious version of the UPS firmware that would result in an explosion. Elliot installs a patch on the UPS system to ensure that no firmware updates can take place without digitally signed keys from E Corp. Essentially, Elliot is protecting the UPS firmware and making it very difficult for the Dark Army to modify it.
3. Elliot is also attempting to wade through the corporate politics at E Corp in order to push his own recovery consolidation proposal. He knows that the plan to ship all the paper to one location is a risky move that creates a single point of failure, so his proposal is to keep the paper where it is and digitize it. If E Corp scans all those documents, there can be multiple copies of it living in different places, which makes a mission like Stage Two impossible. Unfortunately, there's a lot of red tape and bureaucracy that Elliot needs to navigate before making any real progress with this plan.
Even though it looks like he's making great strides in pushing back against Stage Two, Elliot has returned to a state of loneliness. He's sobbing uncontrollably as he's watching Dancing With the Stars. I mean, who hasn't been there, first of all? And second of all... really? Dancing With the Stars is Elliot's comfort viewing?
What? Dancing With the Stars isn't comfort viewing for you? Watching Paula Deen dance like that wouldn't make you cry? It felt natural to experience a "crash" after the high-energy sequence that we opened the episode with. This is also a moment reminiscent of the pilot, with Elliot crying in almost the exact same spot as we saw him in the first episode. Elliot tells us that he feels this empty void inside, which is creating this feeling of loneliness. We know that he and Mr. Robot are no longer able to see or talk to each other, so this is a sad realization that he might actually miss Mr. Robot.
We've seen Elliot alter his own reality in order to make himself comfortable in the past. Even this very season, he muted the hacker-space in order to maintain his composure. Is he not able to do that anymore — is the loneliness more powerful than his creativity?
I think when it comes to loneliness or depression, you don't always have control over it. There are limits to what Elliot can do when he's altering his own reality. Reframing how he's experiencing an environment (the office, the hackerspace, the train) is almost always a commentary on other people. It's his way of observing human behavior and talking to us about them, while often using tech metaphors. When it comes to his own loneliness, it's a different story. Is his loneliness more powerful than his creativity? I guess that comes down to how you feel about why and how Mr. Robot was created to begin with. From that perspective, I believe his creativity is more powerful. But you could also argue that he doesn't have much control over his Mr. Robot side either.
Elliot and Krista's (Gloria Reuben) therapy sessions have resumed, and in the first of two scenes in this episode, we hear about Kevin McCallister the snowman. How many different pop culture figures were discussed before deciding on the Home Alone hero as the basis for the snowman? I'm shocked you didn't go with Marty McFly, given the love for Back to the Future.
This is one of my favorite scenes in the episode. Rami brings this vulnerability to his performance while discussing this moment from Elliot's past, and he's sincerely smiling, which is rare on this show. I believe the Home Alone reference was one of Sam's pitches. When it comes to pop culture references, calling one out in dialogue like this needs to serve an emotional story purpose. Since the film is so well known, it makes Elliot relatable on human level. He's not talking about coding or cryptography. He's recalling a childhood memory that almost all of us have some history with. And trust me, there's no shortage of love for Back to the Future this season.
This season, it feels like we're seeing Elliot in fuller detail than ever before — and what I mean by that is we're allowed to see the shifts in his personality firsthand, whether that's confronting Darlene as Robot later in the episode, or transforming into Robot in Krista's office, or even the faraway look that comes upon Elliot's face as he remembers the Kevin McCallister story. Is that a conscious effort, putting us in front of Elliot in a way that allows us to confront the reality of his condition?
Definitely. We wanted to deepen the relationship between us – his friend – and him this season. Part of that includes showing us more of the transformation and what it looks like to the outside world. Since Elliot and Mr. Robot are separated now, we wanted to explore how one took control from the other while still seeing Rami's body for a beat. Last season, Elliot willingly kept information from us. This season, he and Mr. Robot are keeping information from each other and we're exposed to both of their plans. This conceit falls in line with our themes of duality and disintegration.
Sticking with Krista but skipping ahead to the second scene in her office... Elliot decides to bring Robot into the conversation. We see Rami in control of the performance as Robot for a minute, before Christian Slater comes in. It really felt like Rami was channeling Slater's mannerisms in that scene. Is that intentional?
Yes, one hundred percent. For the past two seasons, when we were on set, in between takes, Rami would sometimes slip into his Christian Slater impersonation. It's fantastic. When we wrote the scripts for season three, we often spoke about perspective and who we would really see when Mr. Robot took over. Since we decided to blur the lines a bit and see more of Rami during some of the transformations, it created an opportunity for Rami to bring his Christian Slater/Mr. Robot impersonation to life. I know that Rami was excited about that. Our sound supervisor, Kevin Buchholz, elevated this idea with some of his audio skills. If you listen closely, you can hear Christian's voice doubled up on top of Rami's in that scene.
Krista and Elliot's relationship has been a quiet highlight of the series. How long have the writers been planning to put Krista and Robot in the same space, and can we expect to see more of them together moving forward?
We've been waiting for an opportunity to have Mr. Robot interact with Krista. I know the idea was pitched many times before, but it never felt organic to the story until this episode. I love Gloria's performance in that scene. The shift in power dynamics is also interesting. Krista goes into it thinking she can handle this alternate personality, only to learn that she's completely outmatched.
After Elliot leaves Krista's office, he returns home, and runs into a familiar face: Lenny Shannon (Armand Schultz), who foists Flipper the dog upon Elliot. When was it decided that Flipper would be brought back into the Mr. Robot universe? As early as season two?
Foisted! It was something we always wanted to do. Flipper was such an integral part of building empathy for Elliot. In the pilot, it was clear how difficult it was for Elliot to connect with others, but he really cared for the well-being of Flipper. It's interesting to note that Elliot's longing to take care of Flipper is what led to him getting arrested at the end of the first season.
Lenny says Flipper is sick, possibly even dying. Mr. Robot exists in a cruel universe. Is it such a cruel universe that you guys would take Flipper away from us and Elliot again, in a permanent capacity?
Our world exists in a cruel universe. Anything's possible, man. Anything.
Speaking of death... Joanna Wellick. That happened. Why did that happen?
We have a sort of cosmic justice that we like to adhere to on the show. Sam was adamant about this when we discussed it in the room. Because Joanna essentially absolved Tyrell (Martin Wallström) of all wrong doing in this horrific and senseless murder of Sharon Knowles, we didn't feel that Tyrell could get off scot-free without any consequences. We had to give him a price to pay… and this was it.
Talk me through the construction of Joanna's death. What was the thought behind killing Joanna off in this way, at this time? How much debate was there in the writers' room over (A) whether or not to do this, and (B) how to do this?
I know that all of the writers loved the dynamic between Joanna and Tyrell, so we were conflicted about writing ourselves into a place where we wouldn't have that anymore. Like I said earlier, we all believed in the cosmic justice of our world and that Tyrell had to suffer the consequences of certain choices he made, as do all of our characters. I believe that most of the disagreements were about when to do it and whether or not it would feel earned. We knew that Derek's reaction to what Joanna said on Frank Cody's show bought us an organic motivation for causing her harm.
Justin Krohn, the editor of this episode, and Chris Guiral, the assistant editor, had a couple different passes at the sound design of this scene. We originally had some score for the music and a lot of sound design, with the crying baby being the linchpin that held everything together. Then we took out all the score and just did it with sound design. The day we were about to lock picture – probably an hour or so before we locked – Sam decided to throw Roxette's "Listen To Your Heart" in there. It gave the scene a whole new dimension. He called all the editors and assistants into the edit bay to get their take on the drastic change. Everyone loved it.
A couple of final points before we close out. Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) lays out the current global economic landscape, stating that China has declared "a currency war." Can you set the stakes for us on this one — what exactly is the situation with the global currency at this moment in the Post-Five/Nine Hack world?
To put it simply, the world is suffering from massive inflation in the wake of the Five/Nine Hack. Credit has been destroyed. Phillip Price is trying to angle ecoin as the world's new standard for currency. It's important to note that ecoin's infrastructure is not decentralized like bitcoin. E Corp is the authority in control of the ecoin ledger. It seems like the rest of the world is onboard with E Corp's new cryptocurrency — except for China. China is leaning toward another cryptocurrency, bitcoin.
Midway through the episode, we learn what we suspected following the season premiere: Darlene is indeed in league with the FBI, serving as a confidential human source. What does Darlene's affiliation with the FBI buy you narratively this season, and how do you justify Darlene's decision to turn on her own brother? Does she simply have no choice?
Well, it definitely sets up some great tension and drama for Darlene. The competing agendas and loyalties echo our overall themes of duality and disintegration. It also mirrors what's happening with Angela in a way. You have two characters who are the closest to Elliot, yet they're playing him in different ways. They also believe wholeheartedly that this is the best way to protect him and everyone else. I do believe that Darlene is acting in a way that protects Elliot and her, even though she's not being completely honest with him.
At the end of the hour, Elliot's standing in Darlene's apartment, directly beneath Dom DiPierrio's headquarters. How exactly did Elliot pull this off, as much as you can say? And what can you tease about Elliot's next steps?
This was something that Ryan Kazanciyan (one of our brilliant hacker consultants) and I spoke about for weeks. We knew that Darlene needed to hack Elliot and get intel for the FBI in some way, but how do you own someone who's as smart and paranoid as Elliot?
Darlene ends up going with a hardware attack on Elliot's monitor. She installs a device (a USB armory) inside his monitor which takes advantage of his on-screen-display controller. Essentially, this small device takes a picture of whatever's on Elliot's screen every 10-30 seconds or so, and then uses a cellular modem to send the the pictures back to her. That's why Darlene and Dom were able to view screenshots of Elliot's screen back at the FBI safe house at the end of the episode when Dom says, "good job." Ryan and I loved this attack because it doesn't require that anything be run on the actual system.
Elliot ends up finding evidence of this attack on his monitor, but he doesn't remove it. Instead, he plans his own counter-attack in order to find the person who hacked him. He uses a fictitious email address and sends out a URL, asking this fictitious receiver to go to this link to download an important file. He knows that whoever is watching his monitor will also see that URL. The hope here is that his attacker goes to that link and downloads that file. That file contains Elliot's own malware which will give him the attacker's location, so whoever goes to that link will infect themselves and send Elliot their location. Dom's partner, Norm, ends up doing exactly that… which is how Elliot ends up at the FBI safe house at the end of the episode.
That Bare Naked Ladies "Rick Roll," by the way...
The BNL prank is something that I used to do to everyone in the writers' room. I'd say something like, "Did you hear the bullshit that Trump said today?" and everyone would be intently listening as I held up my phone... then I'd blast "One Week" by BNL. It always got a laugh. Eventually, Sam and the other writers started doing it, too, so it had to end up in one of the scripts.
Set us up for next week, Kor! What form of inconceivable madness are we in for in episode three of season three?
A momentary loss of muscular coordination. A few extra foot-pounds of energy per second, per second.